TROON, Scotland — Henrik Stenson kept hitting the best shots of his life, one after another.
And he needed each one to stay ahead of Phil Mickelson in a British Open duel Sunday that ranked among the best in major championship history.
The final stroke in this masterpiece was a 20-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole that curled into the cup on the final turn. It gave Stenson 8-under 63, tying Johnny Miller at the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont for the greatest closing round to win a major, and Stenson didn't even realize it until he sat down to sign his card. Records didn't matter. This was about winning his first major.
"Right now I'm running on adrenaline. But there will be some point when I'll struggle to make it up the stairs when I get back to the house," Stenson said after four hours of an epic battle between two 40-somethings at Royal Troon.
Mickelson was a runnerup for the 11th time in a major, but he had never before reached that spot like this. He can't look back at a mistake because he really didn't make any. He opened the tournament with record-tying 63; closed with 65, his best final round in a major; shot the second-best score in British Open history; and was 11 shots better than everyone in the field. Except one.
"It's probably the best I've played and not won," said Mickelson, who had his two best scoring rounds in his major career. "I think that's probably why it's disappointing in that I don't have a point where I can look back and say, 'I should have done that' or 'Had I only done this.' I played a bogey-free round of 65 on the final round of a major. Usually, that's good enough to do it, and I got beat. … Henrik made 10 birdies, so what are you going to do?"
He got beat by arguably the best final round in 156 years of majors.
Miller also made 10 birdies in his final round of the 1973 U.S. Open, then waited to see if anyone could catch him. Stenson started the final round with a one-shot lead over Mickelson and knew it would be a two-man race from the opening hole when Mickelson nearly holed out from the fairway.
Stenson answered with a great shot of his own. He finally grabbed a one shot lead with birdie on 14. "I had to make 30- or 40-footers just to try to keep pace with him," Mickelson later said.
The two of them went to the 15th green sizing up birdie putts with Stenson's ball 51 feet from the hole and just off the green.
"I had about a 40-footer on 15 and I'm thinking, 'I've just got to make that,' " Mickelson said.
He was right, because Stenson improbably sank his monster putt. When Mickelson missed, Stenson had the edge he needed and ran with it. His ninth and 10th birdies in the closing three holes were only exclamation points.
The last birdie was for the record book. Stenson finished at 264, breaking by one the 72-hole scoring record in the majors that David Toms set in the 2001 PGA Championship. His 20 under matched Jason Day's record for lowest under par set at last year's PGA Championship.
His biggest challenge was Mickelson, who has won five majors. "I knew (Mickelson) wasn't going to back down at any point, and in a way, that makes it easier for myself," Stenson said. "I knew I had to keep on pushing."
This was heavyweight material, reminiscent of the British Open's "Duel in the Sun" just down the Ayrshire coastline at Turnberry in 1977, when Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus battled to the final hole and no one else was closer than 10 shots.
Stenson, 40, and Mickelson, 46, were never separated by more than two shots over 40 straight holes until Stenson's final birdie. In the final round, they combined for 14 birdies and an eagle. If it had been a better-ball match, they would've shot 59. "I've always thought that (Stenson) is one of the best ball-strikers in the game and that major championships are perfectly suited for him," Mickelson said. "I knew that he would ultimately come through and win. I'm happy that he did. I'm disappointed that it was at my expense."
J.B. Holmes won the B-Flight. He shot 69 and finished third, 14 shots behind. "Those guys are playing a different golf course than everyone else," Holmes said.
Stenson won his first major in his 42nd attempt, becoming the ninth player to capture his first major after turning 40. Another measure of his performance was he putted for a birdie on every hole Sunday in a mild wind off the Irish Sea. Stenson three-putted for bogey from just off the first green, and he three-putted on No. 11 to fall back into a tie for the lead.
He and Mickelson matched pars on only six of the 18 holes.
Stenson became the fourth player to win the Open with all four rounds in the 60s — and the first to do so at Royal Troon — joining Tiger Woods, Nick Price and Greg Norman. He also ended a streak of six American winners at Royal Troon that dated to 1950.
Mickelson's 11th runnerup spot broke a tie with Arnold Palmer and put him alone in second place all time in majors history, behind Nicklaus' 19. And in yet another footnote to his career that might have him again wondering about the golf gods, he was runnerup to Toms at the 2001 PGA.
But he doesn't have long to get another shot at a major. Because of schedule adjustments for golf's inclusion in the Olympics next month, the PGA Championship begins a week from Thursday at Baltusrol, where Mickelson won that title in 2005.
"We don't have a month to wait between majors is a good thing for me," Mickelson said."
Stenson gave Sweden a long-awaited first major men's win, 19 years after Jesper Parnevik lost a 54-hole lead at Royal Troon. Stenson said Parnevik sent him a message that said, "Go out and finish what I didn't manage to finish."
"I'm really proud to have done that," Stenson said.
Information from the Golf Channel and ESPN was used in this report..